Access to Shell Beach's Chapman House may soon be widened

Ever since Clifford Chapman died and willed his beachside estate to the city of Pismo Beach, the Chapman House’s iron gates have remained largely closed to the public because of a strict city permit limiting the number and size of events there — something city officials may change later this month.

Chapman died in 2012, leaving his landmark home to the city, stipulating in his will that the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Obispo Symphony and Opera San Luis Obispo must be able to continue to hold their annual fundraisers at the estate for free. Chapman also specified that the city’s use of the property was limited to the outside grounds as long as Chapman’s longtime partner Don Shidler continued to live in the house.

The city eventually accepted the gift and, last June, imposed a conditional-use permit allows seven events at the estate each year: one fundraiser for each of the above organizations, a fundraiser to benefit the estate’s maintenance, and three free community events, with no more than 300 people in attendance at any of them.

Since the Pismo Beach Planning Commission approved the conditional-use permit in June, the symphony and opera have held their fundraisers.

The Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County’s annual fundraiser, Afternoon of Epicurean Delights, is scheduled for June 7. Chapman was a strong supporter of CAPSLO, and the group’s fundraiser has been held at the oceanfront property for 28 years.

The nonprofit recently submitted a request to the Planning Commission to amend the conditional-use permit’s 300-person limit to 600 people, to allow for the fundraiser’s usual number of attendees.

The request prompted the City Council to re-examine the conditional-use permit at its meeting Jan. 20. The council voted to authorize the city manager to submit an application to the Planning Commission to amend the permit to allow 600 people to attend the CAPSLO gala.

The amended permit would also drop a requirement that community events with more than 50 people use a shuttle to transport attendees from an off-site location, making it more economically feasible for the city to hold free community events at the estate.

The new permit is set to go before the Planning Commission on March 24, where it is expected to face heavy opposition from neighbors who have protested the city’s plans, saying the events disturb the peace and inconvenience the neighborhood.

“When we purchased our homes on Ocean Boulevard, we were not advised that the Chapman Estate would turn into an event center,” Shell Beach residents Lowell and Sharon Milton wrote in a March 4 letter to the Planning Commission. “We are seriously opposed to this decision. The residents’ wellbeing should not be jeopardized by the city’s need to raise money for the maintenance of this estate.”

Mayor Shelly Higginbotham said she thinks changes to the current permit are necessary, however, because the current permit limits the city’s ability to use the estate as Chapman wanted.

“Mr. Chapman really wanted this place to be a center for the community and for art and philanthropy,” she said. “The current CUP really doesn’t allow for that.”

Higginbotham cited stories about Chapman’s spontaneous “Celebrate America” celebrations in which he would open the estate’s gates and offer passersby free hot dogs and lemonade on the lawn as an example of the kind of community events she would like to see back at the estate.

She said she understands residents’ worries but hopes they will have an open mind while the city attempts to find an appropriate balance.

“Until we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the events would work, with changes to parking and shuttles and other restrictions, and that we can be good stewards to the property, I don’t think it’s fair to have so much opposition,” Higginbotham said. “I have every confidence that we will be able to reach a compromise.”

In preparation for the Planning Commission meeting, the panel held a special meeting at the Chapman House on Monday, where city planning manager Carolyn Johnson led the public on a tour of the estate grounds.

As they wandered across the grounds, about a dozen commission members and locals stopped and took pictures in front of the property’s signature windmill, stood on the edge of the cliff overlooking Pacific and wandered through Chapman’s gardens.

Johnson pointed out several improvements the city had made, including adding a wheelchair ramp for access into the large side lawn area where a koi fish pond was shaded by a Chinese-inspired pergola.

People on the tour were not allowed inside the house because Shidler still lives there.

If the Planning Commission decides not to amend the permit, it will need to approve the original conditional-use permit before it expires on June 24.

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